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Instruments, Constituents, and the Holistic View on Life

In this post, I would like to propose an elaboration of Salmieri’s (Episode 50) discussion of instrumental and constitutive means, and his suggestion of a holistic approach to the evaluation of activities (the ‘holistic view of life’). In particular, I will suggest one way in which we can see a blurring of the distinction of instrumental and constitutive means as leading us to the holistic picture that Salmieri sketches in the episode. This post should not be taken as a definitive interpretation of Salmieri—I will not contend that he would necessarily adopt my elaboration—but it will hopefully help listeners to think about the connection between the discussion instrumental and constitutive means in the middle of the episode, and the reconceptualization of productive activity that Salmieri advocates at its conclusion.

First, let’s briefly recapitulate the distinction between instrumental and constitutive means. It seems natural to distinguish two senses in which we can describe something as a means to something else. In the first sense, we call something a means if it is for the sake of something else—we label this the instrumental sense of ‘means.’ When we say that X is an instrumental means to Y, we are saying that X is a ‘tool’ that helps to bring Y about; X helps to create Y. For example, the knife that a tire factory worker uses to cut the rubber in order to shape it into a tire is an instrumental means to the tire (or creation of the tire). Significantly, we say that the knife is an instrumental means because it is not a part of the final product (the tire)—at least if the tire maker has done his job correctly!

We call X a constitutive means, in contrast, if it helps to bring about Y by being a part of Y. For example, the rubber in the tire factory is a constituent, a part, of the final product, the tire. The rubber isn’t for the sake of something else in the sense that the knife is, since the rubber is ultimately a part of the final product. So a crucial part of the distinction between instrumental and constitutive means is that the former helps bring about something of which it is not a part, whereas the latter helps bring about something of which it is a part. (We might say that the knife contributes to the creation of the tire, while the rubber contributes to the constitution (or realization) of the tire.)

Salmieri claims in the episode that the distinction between instrumental and constitutive means is “perhaps too hard and fast”—that the distinction between instruments and constituents is blurrier than the above analysis implies. I want to propose the following elaboration of this claim: when we evaluate instrumental and constitutive means (say, “that knife (or rubber) is good”), the methods by which we evaluate each type of means share important characteristics. The point, then, isn’t so much that the distinction between instruments and constituents is at bottom illusory or incoherent (the distinction between tools and parts seems pretty clear), but rather that this distinction does not adequately characterize the way in which we evaluate whether X is good, or how good X is.

On the Aristotelian picture, we evaluate the good of things like knives based on their ability to bring about a certain end, for which they are the sake of. The knife (or other instrument), is thus good only in a derivative sense, as its evaluation as good is dependent on factors other than itself (such as the cut rubber that will ultimately be fashioned to form a tire). In contrast, things like pleasure are not evaluated as good based on their ability to bring something else about—such things are ‘good in themselves.’ Now, the Aristotelian will not immediately hold that the distinction between knives and pleasure is that of instrumental and constitutive means—she will likely claim that pleasure is not a means at all, it’s rather an ultimate end (admittedly, this is a simplified picture). But, as the ‘orgasmic oyster’ argument that Salmieri describes points out, we would not be inclined to evaluate pleasure as good stripped away from the context of a full life in which it occurs. Instead, we evaluate pleasure as good only when it is part of a life of robust intellectual, emotional, and social experiences and achievements—pleasure is good insofar as it is part of the good life.

So now we do seem to have the distinction between an instrumental and constitutive means at hand, when we compare the knife to pleasure. But we can press one step further: when we say that pleasure is good insofar as it is part of the good life, we are implying that pleasure is good because it stands in certain relationships to other parts of the good life—it has good consequences (for example: it inclines us to maintain love relationships). But we also say that the knife, an instrumental means, is good for the sake of something else (the production of a tire, which is good because it helps cars drive, which helps us get places, which can, among other things, help us to maintain love relationships too). So, both in the case of the instrument and constituent of the good life, we evaluate something as good by making reference to things external to the object that we are evaluating. In this way, the distinction between instrumental and constitutive means seems to blur: the evaluation of both as good depends on things other than that which we are evaluating.

At the end of the podcast, Salmieri proposes a holistic perspective of life that is meant to undermine the Aristotelian attitude towards productive activity. The basic idea is that, because no element of life (no activity that helps to sustain life, in a broad sense) is intrinsically valuable on its own, we should not see particular sorts of activities (such as productive activities) as radically inferior to other sorts of activities (such as contemplation, or pleasure-experience). I want to conclude by showing how this claim links up with the elaboration of the denial of a hard and fast distinction between instrumental and constitutive means I’ve sketched out above.

We attempted to blur the distinction between instrumental and constitutive means by showing that we evaluate both types of means as good by making reference to elements other than the means itself: both instruments and constituents are good only because they stand in relationships to other good things. That is, neither an instrument nor a constituent can be seen as good when striped away from the context in which we ordinarily evaluate it as good. But this is to say that neither constitutive nor instrumental elements of a process are intrinsically valuable on their own. And since the process which with an Aristotelian ethics is concerned is the good life, we get the claim that neither constitutive nor instrumental elements of the good life are intrinsically valuable on their own, which seems to be Salmieri’s claim. The important point is that we get to this claim by showing that constitutive means of the good life, such as pleasure, are evaluated as good in the same way (or in a very similar way) that we evaluate instrumental means—by making reference to things beyond the means itself. (The key move in all of this, perhaps, is asserting that things like pleasure are constitutive means—once that point goes through, the rest seems to follow directly from the notion of ‘means.’) So, by blurring the line between instrumental and constitutive means, we ultimately arrive at the holistic picture of life that Salmieri advocates, and, hopefully, the vicious implications of the phrase “Thank God it’s Friday.”

Phil Yaure

Posted in Supplements.


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